Amr Khaled: A Religious Rock Star
Voices of Islam (Amr Khaled)
Available at: http://www.egypttoday.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=7718
Photo By: Ethar El-Katatney
Egypt Today speaks with three of the most influential and progressive voices in the modern Islamic world. Their message? That Muslims have a key role to play in todays society, both in Islamic countries and in the West
Amr Khaled’s message to a global audience of young Muslims is modern, moderate and, most importantly, popular. The superstar televangelist plays a unique role in twenty-first century Islamic dialogue. Meet the man behind the message.
LAST YEAR, I went on a 21-day youth camp in England led by Amr Khaled. We camped in forests, dormed at a college and attended lectures and training sessions. I washed dishes, slept in a room as big as my closet and got by on three hours of sleep a night.
I also got to know Amr Khaled, the man dubbed as a “rock star for the Arab world” by Time magazine, which recently chose him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. This is no ordinary rock star, though: This one slept in tents just like we did, ate the same food we ate, and was available 24/7 if any us wanted to talk.
This instantly recognizable media celebrity — loved by many, hated by others — is a very down to earth and simple person.
Shooting to fame in the 1990s, the Alexandrian-born activist, preacher, televangelist — call him what you will — is nothing short of a human dynamo. His simple, heartfelt and easily accessible approach to daa’wa (literally ‘calling people to Islam,’ an Arabic expression that incorporates aspects of both preaching and proselytizing) has won him the love of Muslims.
Although he turned 40 only in September, Amr Khaled is a household name in the Middle East. His lectures are followed by millions from all four corners of the world, and yet he’s the first to tell you that he’s just a man trying to do what’s best for everyone.
Khaled’s smile is reassuring, but don’t be fooled into thinking that just because he’s an easygoing man, he’s not deadly serious about what he does. Behind that smile is a workaholic who puts months and months of meticulous preparation into his shows. He rehearses, holds five-hour focus groups with youth to discuss his shows, and repeats filming of entire episodes if he doesn’t feel they’re 100 percent perfect.
By his own admission, he is not a scholar. What he does claim is that he tries to practice what he preaches, that Islam is a way of life and not just prayers five times a day. He’s a busy man, but still finds time to sit and eat grilled chicken and figs with his family. He balances his life. It seems too good to be true, but he manages to do it.
In search of how, I spent a day with Khaled on the North Coast late this past summer, visiting him while he relaxed at a friend’s villa on the Mediterranean, looking to reach the man behind the global phenomena.
A Day in the Life of Amr Khaled
On arrival at the villa, I was immediately swallowed up by Khaled’s large, boisterous family. His mother greets me as I enter and his wife attempts to hug me while her one-year-old son, Omar, squirms on her shoulder. The house is full of guests, and I can see at least six children of all ages swimming in the pool, shouting and generally doing what children do.
Sitting on the patio overlooking the pool amidst the laughter of children and chatter of adults is Khaled, in Adidas pants and his signature Lacoste polo shirt. He greets me with a huge smile, motioning for me to join him at the table, on the edge of which a pile of books teeters. Textbooks, notebooks, pens, printouts and handwritten notes cover the surface. Two mobile phones flash incessantly.
A quick glance at their screens tells me that Khaled has 45 missed calls. He catches me looking and smiles. “I get an average of 200 calls a day and 120 messages,” he says.
I pull out my voice recorder, pen and notepad, but just as I’m about to press record, Khaled’s wife tells him that his guests have arrived. He smiles apologetically and asks if I could postpone the interview for a while.
Three hours later, we start.
I ask Khaled to describe a normal day in his life. “I am a nocturnal person,” he begins. “Saheer [one who enjoys staying up at night]. My work revolves around reading and preparation [for an upcoming program].” His most productive period, he tells me, begins at midnight and ends at five o’clock in the morning, after the fajr (morning) prayer. He sits in his living room with his books, and turns on any sports channel that looks interesting, then turns the volume down and sets to work.
“All I eat [during that time are] some slices of pizza and I have a soft drink,” he says. “Sometimes, three continuous hours can pass by. Three continuous hours and I don’t notice. The time was 1am, and suddenly I look at the clock and it’s 4am and I’ve written 17 pages. This is my regular workday.”
By fajr time, Khaled will head to the mosque across from his house in Mohandiseen for prayer. “I cross the street in exactly two minutes, but I come back from the mosque to my house in 40 or 50 minutes,” he says with a smile. “It’s hard. I’m tired after my work session and I want to eat and sleep, but when someone comes and tells you, ‘I came from far away to say hello and ask you a question,’ I can’t say no.”
Sometimes after fajr, Khaled will go to the Shooting Club nearby to jog 12-15 laps before heading home for a shower and sleeping until noon.
As soon as he wakes up, he checks his phone. “Sometimes it’s people telling me they are saying hello, sometimes they ask me to perform du’aa [a prayerful request to God] for them, and sometimes they tell me their problems,” he explains. “It’s a nice period. I sit absorbed and I answer the messages. This is how I connect with people. This is what helps me talk [on TV], because I am involved with youth, I am not isolated from them and just get up to tell them a couple of words of advice and morals. I live with them.”
Perhaps this is the reason Khaled has become so popular — audiences have found someone who truly listens to their concerns.
“I don’t know how I found myself here,” he says with a shrug. “When I remember my childhood, my teenage years and my studies, I was a very normal kid. I was always average at school. I never got excellent or very good grades, I never failed. I see myself as someone who doesn’t have a lot of things to distinguish himself by, but that God put me in this position and I play this role. What I have is that I believe in my message. I am not in the box of religious scholars or the box of media stars.”
It is the fact that Khaled does not declare himself in either “box” that riles his critics, who have touted their disagreement from television stations, newspapers and magazines since Khaled began appearing on TV screens. If he’s not a scholar, they maintain, then he has no right to discuss religion. He lacks any religious credentials — he graduated from Cairo University with a degree in accounting, they frequently point out. He does not dress or talk like a scholar — no long, flowing galabeyyas, just suits or Lacoste polos. Consistently suspicious of his motives, the media has at almost every turn branded Khaled an attention-seeking, media-adoring phony who only became popular by a twist of fate.
“I hate the media,” Khaled tells me with a laugh, citing an endless list of what he terms baseless accusations that have been leveled at him: That he works for the American or British government, that he’s on their payroll, and so forth. As for being a scholar, he repeatedly states that he isn’t one, that he never gives fatwas (religious verdicts), and is only involved in daa’wa and in driving a renaissance of the Muslim ummah (community).
So if he’s not what they think he is, how does he really see himself?
“It’s a difficult question. I’ll tell you what I hope I see myself as, not how I really do. I hope that I can see myself as a kind person, who loves people a lot and loves to make people happy. I hope to not be living for myself. I am very happy when I see a smile on other people’s faces.”
We are interrupted by Khaled’s five-year-old son Ali, who gets out of the pool, wraps himself in his Finding Nemo bathrobe and comes to talk to his father. Khaled sits him on his lap and tells me how he has to find time every day to connect with his sons.
“This is usually the time between the maghreb [sunset] and ‘aisha [dusk] prayers. When my elder son comes back from school there is a beautiful interlude. Time to play football! We play in the house. And wrestling. Women don’t understand the secret of the attraction of boys to fathers in wrestling. But this is a part of building a relationship. Then I take him to football or swimming practice. I take him myself to practice, and I stay there. Not a lot of fathers do that, but I’m very happy to do so because I travel a lot. One of the nice things I do whenever I’m in Egypt is read him a goodnight story. Sometimes I tell him the story of a companion [of the Prophet Muhammad, PBUH], and sometimes I start making up stories. I am very careful to be there for him because I am an important factor in his life.”
Does the public attention make it difficult for him to go out with his family? “Sometimes,” Khaled replies. “Once, I remember we were playing football at the Shooting Club, just me and him. Every once in a while people came to say hello. He cried. It’s pressure on him and my family, but I have to respect people and appreciate them. We do our best to balance our lives.”
And what of Khaled’s relationship with his own parents?
“I try with them, I do try,” he explains. “I can’t tell you that I am perfect. Every day I tell myself I don’t exert as much effort as I should. I do lots of things, I visit them, I take their opinion, I talk to them every day, I buy them things. Most importantly, I consult my father on things I’ve already made a decision on, so he’ll feel that I’m his son.
He has to feel that his son cares what he thinks.”
Khaled believes so strongly in the importance of the family unit that he created a whole show about the family called “Paradise in Our Homes,” which is airing this Ramadan. The daily episodes talk about dysfunctional families, how to strengthen relationships between spouses, parents and children, and siblings. The show also tackles parenting challenges, such as how to discuss important issues with your children, how to interact with them, befriend them, and deal with their sex- or drug-related problems.
After hearing all about his hectic day, I still ask about what Khaled likes to do in his free time.
“Football. And many different sports. Racquetball, squash, tennis, anything with a ball, I’m with you. Sports, sports, and watching sports. But playing sports is more fun. Going out with youth. Going out with my son. My [elder] son is my hobby. When I’m in England, I go to Arsenal matches and I take my son to them.”
And how does his life differ when he’s on holiday? “There’s one thing in my life on holiday that is very important: [observing] the beauty of nature and Allah’s creation. The sea, the sunrise, the sunset. Football. Remembrance of Allah on the beach. Ping pong. Chess.”
After the day is over, as I am soon to witness, his family and any guests gather around the outside patio to discuss religion, selecting a topic and getting everyone’s insights. All this while a little girl plays with a toy car, zooming around the chairs and singing.
Khaled tells me that he uses his holiday to interact with youth, whom he meets whenever he’s out or on the beach.
“We have a football match and a religious lecture. When we start talking, they think that the first thing I’m going to talk about is prayer. They’re surprised when they find out that the first thing I ask them is: What are you planning for your future? How many books do you read? What distinguishes you from other youth your age in college? Do you work in the summer? So this is number one. The result is that they begin to listen.
“You then go into number two: What does your relationship with Allah look like? Then we go to number three. What does your relationship with your parents look like? Then number four is the football match. So the relationship is a nice one. The spiritual dimension is there, the future dimension is there, the intellectual dimension is there, and the sports dimension is there. We end up becoming friends.”
He pauses and then says contemplatively, “I am satisfied and content with my life. I am able to bring together worshipping my God, living with a message in my life, and being happy.”
Satisfying, perhaps, but hardly making for a relaxed holiday. He stops the interview several times to sit with guests or answer the phone. Khaled is a consummate multitasker who still manages to enjoy the finer things in life, from Japanese food to Lacoste sportswear and Arsenal football matches. He’s the perfect host, who gets up himself to offer me a drink; a good father, who goes swimming with his son; and a good Muslim, who reminds everyone that it’s time for ‘asr (afternoon) prayer, and for everyone to pray in congregation, down to the three-year-old children.
And his life in Ramadan? Khaled smiles at the mention of Ramadan.
“I’ll tell you something very strange — all the major events in my life happened in Ramadan. The beginning of my getting into religion was in Ramadan, while I was in high school. The beginning of sending my message to people on satellite channels was in Ramadan. Even my leaving Egypt was in Ramadan.
“In Ramadan, I love family gatherings. The gathering of the family over food, an outing, over laughter believe me, a family gathering even over laughter is very important. The beauty of the night. Just like in the summer we admire the beauty of nature, in Ramadan we admire the beauty of the night: staying up late and worshipping Allah. One of the beautiful things in Ramadan is that my wife and I pray the nightly prayers together.”
So does he pray all night? “No. I am a normal person. I pray five prayers, most in the mosque, [and] sometimes I gather my family and we pray in congregation or in the office.”
Khaled left Egypt in late 2002, but continued his preaching outside and settled in England for a number of years. When I inquire about Ramadan in England, Khaled tells me that the only Ramadan he has ever spent abroad was the year he left Egypt, and recounts how difficult it was to go from all the lectures and filming to being isolated.
“It was harsh. The year before I was praying with 40,000 at the Hosary [Mosque in Sixth of October City],” he smiles sadly. “The year I left Egypt, I was praying all alone in my room.”
While living in Birmingham, much of Khaled’s work targeted Muslims in Europe, advising them how to live their lives in non-Muslim countries. Khaled is working on obtaining his PhD from the University of Wales. His thesis is titled “Islam and Coexistence with the Other,” and tackles the question: “Are Muslims in Britain able to coexist with the British community, and is the British community ready to accept Muslims?”
In fact, Khaled’s self-proclaimed resala, or message in life, is the renaissance of the Muslim ummah through this notion of coexistence.
“[With the help of others] I want to revitalize this area of the world. This is where the idea of coexistence comes in, because you cannot create a renaissance without partners who will take your hand. Help from inside our countries and outside our countries, Muslims and non Muslims, Arabs and Westerners, multinationals and businesses founded by Arab businessmen. I believe this is coexistence.”
His message to Muslims living in the West is not “Shape up!” as it is to the Arab world, but rather a call not to live in isolation, showing them how to integrate without assimilating or diluting their own cultures and identities.
“The biggest problem of Muslims abroad is positive contribution to the Western community while remaining proud of Islam. We want to establish balance. You will find some Muslims in the Western community who are able to coexist very well. Then there are others who completely reject their country and religion, or those who preserve their religion very, very well and are isolated from the community.
“As for the Muslims in our countries, the important issue is unemployment.” He stresses the need for the private sector’s help in aiding the government to alleviate unemployment, which he believes results in deviations in both thoughts and behavior.
“The second problem,” he outlines, “is that, unfortunately we as Arabs don’t add anything to the world. We must produce to be respected, to respect each other.”
That’s why Khaled has become an advocate of what he calls faith-based development in the Arab and Muslim worlds. His show, Sonaa El-Hayah (Life Makers), which aired from 2004 to 2005, focused on developing communities. The episodes inspired hundreds of thousands of youth across the world to contribute to their communities. Projects in agriculture, small industries, education, healthcare and other fields were started and many continue to prosper.
In 2003, Khaled established the Right Start Foundation (rightstart.org.uk), a non-profit foundation registered as a UK charity. The organization, headquartered in Britain with branches in Egypt, aims to build bridges between Muslim youth and projects in the West that could serve youth in Arab countries.
Khaled’s shows, what pulled him into the spotlight, are watched by millions across the globe. His audio lectures are sold in countries all over the world, and his books have been translated into many languages. He has written several articles for newspapers and magazines, and has been featured in many newspapers and magazines, most notably the
New York Times Magazine and Time.
His website, amrkhaled.net, is currently ranked number 1,402 on web ranking service Alexa’s list of the world’s most popular websites, coming in even higher than the website for US phenomenon Oprah Winfrey, which ranks number 5,113.
In Egypt, the site is the thirty-seventh most visited website, with a full 41 percent of its users Egyptian. So with the skyrocketing audience who visit the site or tune in to his shows, does he think Egyptians are becoming more religious?
“For Egyptians, religion is part of their nature, and it runs deep, from the time of the Pharaohs. Someone might not be all that religious, but listens to someone wronging the Prophet and suddenly turns into this beast rising to the Prophet’s defense.”
“But,” Khaled continues, “at the same time we want religion to be on all levels. We don’t want superficialities. We want religiosity to result from good behavior. People focus on superficial aspects because it’s easy. We have two contradicting outlooks: The person who is good in worshipping, but bad in manners, and the person who’s good in manners, but bad in worshipping. Can’t we have both?”
Practicing what he preaches, Khaled believes he has managed to achieve balance in his own life. “At the end,” he concludes, “the nicest thing is to balance your relationship with your God, to have a message to fulfill in your life, and to be happy. I feel that iman [faith] adds to me. It adds mental happiness and stability. I am not [at odds] with myself — I am content.”
So content that he rests on his laurels? “If I am alive in 10 years, then I see myself in the same place — as long as I am contributing to a renaissance in this area of the world.”
Who is he?
Amr Mohamed Helmi Khaled was born in Alexandria to an upper middle class family. He studied at Cairo University, graduating with a degree in accounting in 1988. Two years later, he gave his first unplanned religious lecture during a relative’s birthday party at the Shooting Club in Dokki. The audience was so impressed that he became a regular lecturer at the club’s mosque, and soon began lecturing in the homes of the upper class throughout the capital.
His popularity soared, and eventually he had to move to Al-Hosary mosque in Sixth of October, which accommodated up to 40,000 people. A lightning rod for critics of the nation’s growing religiosity, Khaled ran afoul of several powerful decision makers who resented his influence and he elected to leave the country for several years in 2002, first going to Beirut, then settling in England. He has only recently returned to Egypt to live full time.
Khaled’s preaching style was novel when he first appeared on the scene. He is a charismatic, confident, dynamic speaker, who speaks in colloquial Arabic and is very appealing to youth. His Western garb and the energetic delivery of his lectures, accompanied by his passionate supplications, made him instantly stand out from his more monotonous, turban-clad, harshly bearded scholarly counterparts.
He is also —as his critics and supporters both agree — very influential. His supporters love his influence, and thousands of women put on the hijab (veil) after he praised it. His critics, on the other hand, have derided him as a “pied piper” who has too much influence over youth. The fact that Khaled shuns all labels and refuses to define what exactly he is — political activist, preacher, etc — makes him all the more worrisome to them.
Khaled is clear about one thing: He hopes to convince his followers that faith is the key to a moral, scientific, cultural and economic renaissance in the region. His first call was for a return to spirituality, then for a move toward faith-based development. Throughout, he preaches the benefits of hard work, good works and impeccable manners,
urging youth to transform their lives and their communities.
His most popular shows include Life Makers, On the Path of the Beloved [Muhammad PBUH], In Your Name [Allah] We Live, and A Call for Coexistence. et
Watch Amr Khaled’s new show about the family “Paradise in Our Homes” at these times and channels: 3pm/2am on El-Rai 3pm/5am on Abu Dhabi 5pm/11pm on El-Mehwar 10pm/9:30am on El-Resala.